Oh, the possibilities

Following Saturday's game against Michigan State – fittingly, the month of January is bookended by games against the Spartans – Northwestern's schedule finally begins to soften. With the ridiculous early-conference-season gauntlet coming to a close, Purple Reign takes a look at the different scenarios that could play out over the next five weeks.

Any way you break down the opening leg of Northwestern's conference slate, the schedule has been brutal.

Just think – over their first nine Big Ten games – including Saturday's game against Michigan State – the Wildcats (14-6, 3-5) have played:

* The top six teams in the conference standings: MSU (twice), Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois (twice), Purdue, Minnesota

* The only four Big Ten teams that are ranked: No. 5 MSU (twice), No. 12 Purdue, No. 16 Wisconsin, No. 24 Ohio State

* The top five scoring teams in the conference: MSU (twice), Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois (twice), Ohio State

* The top seven scoring defenses (not including No. 6 NU): you know the list by now

* Ten of the conference's top 11 scorers (not including John Shurna, who has "slipped" to fifth place at 17.3 points per game)

Purple Reign said a few weeks ago that the first 10 games of Northwestern's Big Ten schedule – all of which are against 2009 NCAA Tournament teams – could be mistaken for a practical joke by the league's scheduling office. And that's still the sentiment.

But following Saturday's game against Michigan State – fittingly, the month of January is bookended by games against Sparty – the clouds begin to break.

Four of Northwestern's next five games are at Welsh-Ryan. Nine of the next 10 – save a Feb. 21 trek to Madison – are against unranked teams. And that includes a few games against teams that are really unranked, like 8-12 Penn State (twice), 8-14 Iowa (twice), 10-10 Michigan and 9-10 Indiana (twice).

This is probably the starkest way to juxtapose the shift from sinister to soft that's about to take place: The combined overall record of NU's opponents in its first nine conference games is 91-31, or 74.6 percent. The combined overall record of NU's opponents in its final nine conference games is 64-56, or 53.3 percent.

And get this – the only two final-nine-games teams that have winning records are Minnesota and Wisconsin, each of which NU will play just once. Meanwhile, the Cats get Penn State, Iowa, Michigan and Indiana – they of the combined 8-23 conference mark – a total of seven times.

Here's what lies ahead:

January 30, at No. 5 Michigan State
February 2, Michigan
February 7, Indiana
February 10, at Iowa
February 14, Minnesota
February 17, Penn State
February 21, at No. 16 Wisconsin
February 25, Iowa
February 28, at Penn State
March 3, Chicago State
March 6, at Indiana

So, what's going to happen? Well, that's anyone's guess. But Purple Reign has cooked up a few scenarios that should help us anticipate what's on the horizon.

The "same as last year" scenario

What if everything plays out just like it did last season? That is, what if Northwestern wins its upcoming home games against the teams it beat at home last season, and loses the road games it lost last season?*

*For the sake of the remainder of this schedule-based diatribe, let's assume Northwestern falls to Michigan State on Saturday.

Sure, Northwestern beat MSU in East Lansing last season. But does that make it more likely to happen this season? Not so sure it does. Actually, won't that make it harder? And sure, the Spartans have won their last two games – at Minnesota and at Michigan – by a combined two points, which isn't that impressive. But still, they are 18-3, winners of nine straight and they pounded NU in Evanston earlier this month. A win over MSU would be a huge resume-builder. But honestly, would you bet on it?

You probably WOULD bet on NU beating Chicago State on March 3 – an assumption that will also be made from here on out.

If this 2009 Redux happens over NU's last nine conference games, then the Cats will lose at Penn State, lose at Wisconsin, beat Minnesota and Indiana at home, lose at Iowa, lose to Michigan at home, win at Indiana, beat Iowa at home. That's 4-4, with the one remaining game a home tilt against Penn State; NU didn't play PSU at Welsh-Ryan last season. Seeing as the Nittany Lions are on an eight-game losing streak, let's call that one a win.

Assuming a defeat this Saturday, that would put Northwestern's end-of-season record at 20-11 – counting on that win over Chicago State – and 8-10 in the Big Ten. Not great, not bad.

Alas, this scenario doesn't seem that likely. After all, last season NU lost at Penn State and Iowa, but those two teams are 0-8 right now in conference home games. So NU should win at least one of those. And if NU does indeed take one in either Happy Valley or Iowa City, then the Cats hit the 20-win mark and .500 in conference play, two telltale benchmarks for making the tourney.

The "everything goes right" scenario

The "everything goes right" scenario is maybe a bit of a misnomer. A better name might be the "everything goes right within reason" scenario.

If everything truly went right, then the Wildcats would win this Saturday at Michigan State, then they'd storm into Madison, where they have had serious trouble winning, and spank the Badgers.

Instead of dreaming, let's acknowledge history and say that NU probably won't win at No. 5 MSU or No. 16 Wisconsin. That's not being too harsh. But let's say that NU does win everything else. And that isn't at all out of the realm of possibility.

With a road win at North Carolina State – which recently knocked off Duke and FSU in Tallahassee – plus a road win at Michigan, Northwestern has shown it can play on the road. Couple that with the fact that the dregs of the Big Ten are all that's left down the stretch – save Wisconsin – and NU could indeed run the table (save MSU and Wisconsin). The only remaining road trips are to Iowa, Penn State and Indiana – all winnable.

If the Cats win everything besides MSU and Wisconsin, NU would be 22-9 with a 10-8 conference mark. A winning conference record with 22 overall wins – that'd be enough for a tourney bid.

The "everything goes wrong" scenario

Again, let's qualify this by saying "within reason." Honestly, Northwestern probably won't lose at home to Iowa or Chicago State or Penn State. But even if you admit that as fact, there is still a lot that could go wrong. NU could lose at home to Michigan, at Iowa, to Minnesota and at Penn State.*

* As easy as it is to chalk up PSU as a W, a closer look at the Nittany Lions' schedule shows that they've had some killer bad luck – and thus may not be as much of a pushover as their 8-12, 0-8 record suggests.

Penn State lost at Minnesota by five, at Illinois by one, at Iowa by three and at Wisconsin in overtime. If a couple of those decision went the other way, maybe PSU would be 10-10 or 11-9 with a few conference wins. Plus PSU has the conference's leading scorer in Talor Battle, who is good for more than 19 per game. Northwestern is still a smart bet, but just saying…

OK, so if everything goes wrong it's back to the NIT. In this scenario, NU loses at home to Michigan, Indiana (3-4 conference record compared to NU's 3-5…not a ludicrous suggestion) and Minnesota. Throw in road losses to Iowa (which was similarly bad last season but still beat NU in Iowa City), Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana, and the Cats would finish the season 17-14 and 6-12 in the Big Ten. Definitely not going to the tourney.

This seems the most unlikely scenario, except for…

The "Northwestern grabs a No. 2 seed" scenario

Let's forget the clauses about NU losing at Michigan State and Wisconsin. Let's say instead that Northwestern makes it back-to-back Ws in East Lansing and somehow manages to follow that up with a win in Madison – and running the table in between. Basically, let's say NU wins out.

Following the win against Wisconsin, Northwestern is 21-6, 10-5 in the Big Ten and ranked in the top 20. Michael Wilbon is going ape every day on Pardon the Interruption talking about Northwestern hoops (Knuckleheads!) and Northwestern is one of the biggest stories of the year.

The Wildcats finish the season by polishing off Iowa, Penn State, Chicago State and Indiana. They roll into the Big Ten Tournament on – get this – an 11-game winning streak. Obviously they go on to win the conference tourney, and the only drama on Selection Sunday is whether or no NU will be a 2 or 3 seed. (It'd probably be a 2.)

That'd be nice, huh?

Of course, the season will unfold with some combination of all these scenarios. NU could drop one it shouldn't (at Indiana maybe) and possibly win one it shouldn't (Saturday?). And truth be told, the fate of the season may come down to the Big Ten Tournament anyway, rendering 1,500-word "What if" rants like this irrelevant.

But whatever happens, it's likely that brighter days are ahead. Because that ridiculous 10-tourney-teams-in-10-games stretch is over. Almost.

You can comment on this at the Welsh-Ryan Message Board.

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